Our countdown to the Oscars continues with predictions in my favorite categories…screenplays.
Very different films across the board makes this a challenging category to predict. There are legitimately 4 movies here that could win.
Arrival by Eric Heisserer
Any time someone asks me what I thought about Arrival I always tell them it feels more like a sci-fi novel than a sci-fi film. That is a testament Heisserer’s smart adaptation of Ted Chiang’s novella, “The Story of Your Life.” It doesn’t dumb it down for the screen but rather gives audiences the benefit of the doubt that they can go beyond the sci-fi and connect with the characters which is what this story is all about.
Fences by August Wilson
Wilson might not have been the right person to write the adaptation of his own stage play. That’s not to say that he didn’t do a good job. But I think the play needed a little more adapting for film. It feels like a play from start to finish so some things worked on screen and some things didn’t.
Hidden Figures by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
This was the most surprising of Hidden Figures’ nominations. While it is an enjoyable film with some good performances its strength is not in its script. It’s fine. It’s just not remarkable. This is where I would have rather seen Nocturnal Animals nominated.
Lion by Luke Davis
Probably the most impressive part of Davis’ adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home” is the way he handled Saroo’s separation from his family until he is about to be adopted. This opening section of the film is between a quarter and a third of the film with minimal dialogue. It can be easy to rely on dialogue to drive the story. Most do. But the way Davis carefully crafted the action to tell the story and convey the emotion of the character was very impressive.
Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
What a carefully crafted script. Moonlight tells the tale of Chiron Harris from a young boy, through high school and into adulthood. Broken into three sections, one for each era of Chiron’s life and his moniker (“Little”/ “Chiron” / “Black”) each section stands alone. In some ways it felt like 3 episodes of a mini-series. My only complaint about this script was the turning point between acts 2 and 3. The catalyst felt forced. But it’s a small complaint on an otherwise excellent script.
SELBY PICK: Lion
I think Lion is the better overall script but Academy voters will go with the better overall picture.
As diverse a group of scripts as the adapted category, this race might surprise some people.
Hell or High Water by Taylor Sheridan
Fun script that takes a familiar genre and gives it a very intelligent treatment. Brothers robbing banks to help pay off the family farm isn’t terribly original but using parallel “brothers” to tell the story is. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard being chased by “brothers” (Texas Ranger partners) Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker gives the story a genuine emotional connection. Each pair struggles with similar personality challenges but above all they deeply care for one another. Sheridan takes Hell or High Water from a paint-by-numbers crime story to something with real depth.
La La Land by Damien Chazelle
How do you write a script for a musical? Apparently it’s really difficult. I’ve read Chazelle’s script for La La Land and I’ve seen the film twice. His vision for the film is on the page but many of the specifics changed before it was all said and done. But looking at what ended up on screen it was masterful. The story of Mia and Sebastian finding their way in the LA film and music industries and finding a deep love in each other is the stuff of movie legend. A lot has been made about this movie and as you read these articles you’ll hear a lot more. It’s all true.
The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
A tale as old as time… In a future society in which being part of a couple is mandatory, and single people are given 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into the animal of their choosing David (Colin Farrell) fails to find love, escapes and joins a reclusive group that insists on celibacy. I know. Cliché. But The Lobster breaks away from what we normally see if movies about people who don’t find a mate being turned into animals and gives us a heartbreaking story of people who just want to love and be loved.
Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan
Speaking of heartbreaking, when his older brother dies, handyman Lee Chandler returns to his hometown of Manchester by the Sea where he struggles to cope with his current grief and a tragedy from his past while trying to find a way to comfort his teenage nephew, who has been left in his care. Lonergan manages to take some pretty heavy subject matter, make it relatable and at times even humorous. He put it all together in a sharp and truthful script.
20th Century Women by Mike Mills
Mills’ story of a teenager and his eccentric mother in 1979 Santa Barbara, California substitutes “authenticity” for substance. The characters are all, for the most part, well-developed. But the story itself is deeply lacking. The mother and son’s struggle to bond stands in for a storyline and in the end in doesn’t go anywhere.
SELBY PICK: La La Land
PREDICTION: Manchester by the Sea
There have been a number of movie musicals to be nominated for a screenplay Oscar over the years. From Mary Poppins to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to Cabaret. But even of the musicals that would go on to win Best Picture only Going My Way, An American in Paris and Gigi also took home the writing award.
West Side Story lost to Judgment at Nuremberg. My Fair Lady lost to Becket. The Sound of Music wasn’t even nominated. Oliver! lost to The Lion in Winter. Chicago lost to The Pianist.
Besides the three best picture winners only one other movie musicals has even won a screenplay Oscar* Interrupted Melody (1955).
So regardless of what may or may not happen with La La Land in the Best Picture category I don’t think it takes home the Oscar. I think Hell or High Water might be the most sophisticated script but Manchester by the Sea is anchored by the kind of strong emotion the Academy loves.
* since 1940–prior to that the category was still evolving and not an apples to apples comparison.